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Finding space for large carnivores

Nature Ecology & Evolution volume 1, Article number: 0140 (2017) | Download Citation

To the Editor — The single most critical question to the conservation of large carnivores is where they are supposed to live. After a long history of persecution, large carnivores became isolated from humans and restricted to remote wilderness and protected areas (Fig. 1). They have now become emblematic of such areas, epitomizing the commitment of modern societies to conservation1. Large carnivores are nowadays considered as species of wilderness value2, and the notion that wilderness and remoteness are essential requirements for their conservation has prevailed3, shaping their ranges in many places. Such framing legitimizes a land-sparing approach for large carnivore conservation.

Figure 1: Conceptual model of large carnivore population trajectories.
Figure 1

The history of large carnivores shows massive decline due to persecution and deliberate eradication policies that goes back to the earliest expansion of livestock farming. Only during the past five decades have human societies shifted from persecuting large carnivores toward preserving and restoring them. The enactment of conservation measures and political commitment has prevented the extinction of many populations from the 1970s onward. But the recovery of large carnivores may be limited by a land-sparing paradigm (separation). Adopting a land-sharing view (sharing) allows for larger, viable and possibly functional populations.

This dogmatic view of large carnivores as creatures of wilderness, with human-dominated landscapes arbitrarily viewed as unsuitable habitats for these species, impedes our collective ability to envision conservation alternatives that do not include wilderness or remoteness (Fig. 1). By portraying large carnivores as architects in pristine ecosystems, we subordinate the justification for their conservation to the fulfilment of ecological services, ultimately delegitimizing other reasons, such as their aesthetic and intrinsic values. Consequently, large carnivores in multi-use landscapes may not be perceived and valued as equal to predators ranging in, for instance, Yellowstone National Park.

Over time, confinement of large carnivores to wilderness became a self-fulfilling prophecy, reinforcing the symbolic link to wilderness as successive human generations lived in landscapes lacking large carnivores. Consequently, societies forget how to coexist with large carnivores, prompting fear and resentment when they return. An illustrative example is fear of wolves recolonizing areas near villages, because of the perception that ‘shy’ wolves are supposed to inhabit wild areas4. This view could trap large carnivores at low population sizes in isolated wilderness or protected areas, and preclude their recovery in many parts of the world. By not allowing people to mentally frame an alternative view where carnivores share the landscape, we create a catch-22 situation: we prevent large carnivores from occupying human-dominated landscapes based upon the belief that they can’t.

Land-sparing increasingly faces its own shortcomings for guiding large carnivore conservation as predators and people increasingly overlap. Given current projections of human population increase (up to 12 billion by 2100)5 and decrease of wilderness areas worldwide (one-tenth of the world's wilderness has been destroyed in two decades)6, the conservation of large carnivores would benefit from a radical shift freeing these species from wilderness, viewing them instead as normal and legitimate parts of human-dominated landscapes. Evidence showing the ability of large carnivores to persist in human-dominated landscapes is accumulating7,​8,​9,​10, legitimizing the idea that separation is not a necessary condition for their conservation. The challenge is whether modern human societies are willing to tolerate and adapt to landscapes that include predators. Embracing a land-sharing view will require multiple steps at the societal (for example, reframing the symbolic nature of large carnivores or promoting collective responsibility for their conservation), institutional (for example, adopting appropriate governance and setting clear goals to build trust) and individual levels (for example, recognizing not only costs but also benefits of large carnivores). This framing also acknowledges that large carnivores may have to be killed in particular situations, and that their functional roles may be constrained by humans.

Wilderness is worth being conserved for its own sake, not just because a particular species is associated with it. Extending large carnivore conservation approaches beyond the boundaries of wilderness and natural areas into a wider realm where people and large carnivores share the landscape may lead to the outcomes conservation biologists have been striving for since mid-1980s: functional populations of large carnivores that are demographically and genetically viable.


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Author information


  1. Research Unit of Biodiversity (UO/CSIC/PA), Oviedo University, 33600, Spain.

    • José Vicente López-Bao
  2. School of Environment and Natural Resources, The Ohio State University, 43210, USA.

    • Jeremy Bruskotter
  3. Department of Ecology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, 73091, Sweden.

    • Guillaume Chapron


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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to José Vicente López-Bao.

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